Cheers for the architect of the Rangers’ only Stanley Cup-winning team since 1940 washed over Neil Smith as the 1994 champions were introduced Friday night to an adoring Garden audience that 25 years later still cannot thank them enough.
This was a hearty welcome back for the general manager, who has generally been an outcast around these parts since his dismissal in March 2000. On Thursday, Garden CEO Jim Dolan and Smith had a long, warm conversation at a dinner at a Manhattan restaurant for the players, staff and their families to kick off this 25th anniversary celebration.
The freeze that had marked the relationship between Smith and the organization appears to have thawed. This weekend could represent the former GM’s port of re-entry into the family.
“I pray that it would,” Smith told The Post hours before the on-ice ceremony preceding the Rangers-Hurricanes match. “I hope that it would. I am just so happy to be here.”
This is a special weekend in the life of the ’94 Rangers and in the lives of the citizens of Rangerstown as the organization celebrates this once-in-a-lifetime achievement that has grown more mystical by the decade, if not the year.
And it is a weekend that might produce moments of respite, if not solace, for Smith, who is in desperate need of it following the loss of his beloved son, Viktor, who took his own life in September at the age of 21.
“You never get away from the pain. It’s there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Smith said, talking publicly for the first time about the tragedy. “There’s never a second that he is not on my mind.
“He was going to be here with me this weekend. That was the plan. So I’m here, enjoying this, talking about the Cup, talking about memories, but it’s always with me. It’s like I kind of talk above it, but it’s always with me. There is a pain that never goes away.
“You keep going on in life with this brutal pain. You keep going.”
Before Four Horsemen Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves addressed the press from a dais, Smith and Mike Keenan took questions from the assembled audience. The one-time antagonists appeared so copacetic that it seemed only a matter of time before the GM would reach into his pocket and hand the coach that $208,000 bonus payment that was mysteriously delayed in the weeks following the parade up the Canyon of Heroes.
“You know, it’s funny, all the stuff that went on between myself and Mike, I don’t think the players gave a crap about it,” Smith said. “I don’t think that caused any tension within the room. If there was tension, it would be because the players never knew what to expect with Mike. That was his methodology.
“And honestly, there wasn’t that much going on between us most of the year. I looked at my job as trying to give him what he needed.”
Part of what Keenan needed was for Smith to trade Tony Amonte, the 23-year-old sniper who’d recorded 68 goals his first two seasons on Broadway but to whom the coach never took a shine. Amonte eventually was traded to Chicago at the deadline in the deal that brought Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan to New York.
“Did I like that Mike didn’t like Tony? No, I didn’t. Did I want to trade Tony? No, I didn’t,” Smith said. “But I did agree that we had a mandate to win that year, and I could see that the trade could make us stronger for the playoff run, so we made the trade and it obviously worked for everyone.
“But I’ll say this. When we made that deal, along with some of the others, I was thinking that if we didn’t win that year, we’d be screwed. I’d used all my chips.”
Ah, but the Rangers cashed in. Every championship team is special. Each is unique. All have their own stories that bind. But this group. These 1994 Blueshirts. They stand alone. The only Ranger Cup championship team in the modern era of the NHL. The only Ranger Cup championship team since 1940.
And Smith is the only man alive to have ever built a Rangers Stanley Cup championship team.
“It’s the mentality of the city,” the GM said. “Go outside. Drivers are blasting horns. ‘Come on, hurry up, let’s go, what’s going on, why haven’t you gone yet?’ It’s not a place for a lot of patience and that makes it difficult to build a hockey team.
“But I get it. I got it. We did as an organization. That represented a great deal of our strength in ’94, the way the organization and the team were all in on winning. We embraced the city’s challenge. And we fulfilled the mandate.”
Twenty-five years later, the ’94 Rangers still stand alone. The hope is — the prayer is — that Neil Smith does not.
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